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The Nation

Hanssen Spied for the Money, Report to Say

Inquiry: Webster panel will detail ex-FBI agent's motivation and disclose the bureau's widespread security deficiencies.

April 03, 2002|ERIC LICHTBLAU | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — Former FBI agent Robert Philip Hanssen has told government investigators that his 22-year career as a Russian spy was driven by money as he sought to cover house payments and parochial school tuition for his six children, law enforcement sources said Tuesday.

Hanssen's admission, disclosed in a high-level report due out Thursday, marks the first time he has divulged his motivation for spying. The report from the Webster Commission also identifies widespread security failings in the FBI counterintelligence operation and offers numerous recommendations on how to fix them, including more frequent use of polygraphs for agents and tightened access to secret information, said people familiar with the review.

"In every area of security--document security, physical security, personnel security, computer security--the FBI's system was absolutely dysfunctional," according to a person familiar with the Webster report who asked not to be identified.

The 13-month review, led by former FBI and CIA Director William H. Webster, was aimed at analyzing the worst episode of espionage in FBI history and determining how Hanssen was able to elude detection for so long in selling top-secret material to the Russians, beginning in 1979.

Hanssen was arrested in February 2001 after he dropped off a new batch of documents for his Russian handlers in a park near his suburban Virginia home. He pleaded guilty last June to espionage charges in a deal that spared him the death penalty, as he admitted that he sold numerous national security secrets in exchange for $1.4 million in cash and diamonds.

With two new books out on Hanssen, speculation has only intensified about one of the few lingering mysteries in the notorious case: What drove him? Some who knew Hanssen have suggested it was the sheer "thrill" of the spy game. Others said it was his intellectual arrogance and a desire to outfox FBI colleagues whom he looked down upon. Others thought it was simple greed, or perhaps even a mental defect borne of his father's rough treatment of him as a child.

Hanssen was interviewed earlier this year over a period of several days by Webster Commission investigators, and he sought to put the question to rest in his own words.

"He needed the money," according to an official familiar with the report's account of the Hanssen interviews.

Hanssen told debriefers that he first made contact with the Soviets in the late 1970s after he was reassigned from Indianapolis to the FBI's New York City bureau, where living expenses were much higher and he was having trouble keeping up with his house payments in Scarsdale.

"He blamed [the start of his espionage career] on the move to New York," the official said. "That's when he started. He had more house than he could afford."

In later years, Hanssen told debriefers, he was confronted with other financial demands--including the desire as a devout Roman Catholic father to put his six children through expensive parochial schools and college. He also used some of the money to lavish a car and other expensive gifts on a Washington stripper in an apparent attempt to "save" her, Hanssen told commission investigators.

Hanssen also told investigators that he now realizes what he did was wrong, according to the report.

While Hanssen confirmed that he had passed numerous secrets to the Russians, he apparently did not divulge any new material that he may have sold, according to sources familiar with the report. Investigators already have an extensive understanding of the damage Hanssen caused to national security by giving the Russians key information about U.S. intelligence programs and methods, and by helping unmask at least three Soviets who were spying for the Americans. The Soviets later executed all three.

The Webster Commission, appointed by Atty. Gen. John Ashcroft last year and made up of senior officials in law enforcement and national security, is expected to conclude that Hanssen slipped through the cracks for more than two decades in part because of inattention to internal security, antiquated computers and a byzantine management system.

Key clues to Hanssen's behavior that could have served as a "tripwire" for further investigation were overlooked, sources said. For instance, there were a number of inconsistencies raised in Hanssen's periodic background reviews through the 1970s, such as whether an infusion of cash for a room addition came from an inheritance he had gotten or from his wife's family. But the inconsistencies were never pursued, sources said.

In addition, the report concludes that Hanssen was able to nimbly navigate the FBI's computer system to get access to sensitive information and to periodically check whether anyone had opened an investigation into his own espionage activities.

The report recommends that the FBI conduct polygraph tests every five years of agents with access to sensitive material and that it severely restrict access to sensitive information among its personnel, sources said. Where new FBI agents are now routinely given top-secret clearance when they join the bureau, the commission recommends that such clearance be limited to a "need to know" basis.

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